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Exclusive: Q&A with ‘Dune’ head makeup designer Donald Mowat

Donald Mowat is one of the film industry’s premier makeup artists with a career spanning over 30 years. Over the course of his rise to the top, Mowat has earned two BAFTA nominations for Nocturnal Animals and Blade Runner 2049, as well as five Saturn nominations and one win for Prisoners. 

Mowat’s resume also includes credits on film like Three Kings, The Departed, The Fighter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Skyfall, Nightcrawler, Sicario, Spectre, First Man and Spider-Man: Far From Home. He has also been the personal makeup artists on films for Mark Whalberg, Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling. 

Next up for Mowat is Dune, the highly-anticipated science fiction epic from director Denis Villeneuve due out December 18, 2020. While he was particularly guarded when it came time to discuss the project, which is currently shrouded in secrecy, our Johnny Sobczak was able to get a few details out of the illustrious makeup designer.

Johnny Sobczak: Are you going to be part of the crew that’s going back to Hungary next month (for reshoots on Dune)?

Donald Mowat: Yeah, so hence I’m trying to figure out COVID testing. It’s like every time I go out now, I think, “Oh my god, I can’t get sick now.” Like, nothing can happen because we’re in the thick of it, let me tell you. 

JS: Especially in your position, you can’t get much closer than the work that you have to do with everyone in the cast, I imagine.

DM: We’re in for such a… I’m trying not to be depressed. I’ve had so many Zooms and really nobody knows. I think we’re one of the first [to return], even though we’re additional photography. I think we’re the first movie, certainly there [in Budapest]. London has started Jurassic World.

Donald Mowat (right) on the set of “First Man” with Ryan Gosling. (Photo courtesy of Donald Mowat)

JS: You hear a lot of times how hard it is to go back and do reshoots and additional photography already, but then when you throw COVID conditions on top of that…

DM: I’m trying not to dwell on it. Part of me thinks it’s my last job ever. I don’t know! I’ll tell you after because if I make it through this… We’re in studios, so it’s fine. It’s very manageable.

JS: With the kind of longevity that you’ve had, so much about filmmaking has changed. With the introduction of digital filmmaking and a lot more heavy visual effects, how has that affected the work you do, which is a lot more practical?

DM: When things started going digital, I remember being terrified. You listen to a lot of people go, “Oh my god.” One of my first jobs digital was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I remember being really apprehensive about it. And David Fincher is one of the most impressively knowledgeable people in the industry. I remember going to him and him telling me things he likes, doesn’t like, colors and things like that. For me, the transition to digital? No problem. I think I learned it’s about the camera, the lighting and the cinematographer. 

We have gone through a lot of technical changes. The makeup is much harder than it used to be. When I started, you could get away with a lot of stuff. Now, your makeup effects, your prosthetics, everything has to be state-of-the-art, the best. That is a pretty tall order to fill. The actors haven’t had to change. I mean, they have to work more with a green-screen, but – I’ll get in so much trouble for saying this – what we do is way harder than what a lot of other people have to do. Cinematography, cameras, all of that has changed. And so is what we’ve done. Hair hasn’t changed. Costume hasn’t changed. Maybe some color saturation, but actual costume design has not changed. Production design hasn’t. I don’t think our crews have kept up in the way other departments have. It has made a real imbalance and we feel like we got left behind a little bit.

JS: Out of the four guys you’ve worked with the most – Mark Whalberg, Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling – who is your favorite?

DM: I love them all, and they’re all very different. And I have unique relationships with each one, as they do with me. I would say I don’t really have a favorite, like a parent. But there’s some kind of symbiotic relationship you build, and I think it’s an older man-younger man kind of thing. I certainly felt that with Mark and Jake, and Ryan to some extent. Daniel and I are a bit more the same generation. Very similar upbringings, Daniel and I. Extremely similar, culturally. My parents are from the U.K., and he is from the North of England. My mom is from Scotland. My dad was a teacher, his mom is a teacher. We have very similar reactions to things.

Jake knows me well, but Wahlberg probably knows me better than most people. He knows how I’ll react to things, even though I don’t really work with him now. Jake and I probably have a relationship that I think is the most symbiotic. Jake and I have just learned to develop characters together – certainly on Nightcrawler and Prisoners.

JS: Talking about the makeup for Prisoners for Jake specifically – the finger tattoos (on Detective Loki). Was that Jake’s idea? Or how did you two develop that? People love those little details.

DM: It’s funny because at first I hated the whole idea. I was so conflicted because I come from a place where sometimes I think you can overdo it with makeup. And I’ll get in trouble for this – I think some people try too hard. I really believe you can’t have makeup, hair and costume elements all working at one time. If your leading girl is in something, you can’t be doing all this makeup and hair. Do the hair, or do the makeup.

I had never worked with Denis Villeneuve before, and it was all new to me. I came in a bit last-minute, and they kind of fought to get me because it was shot in Atlanta, and they wanted to use a local. I owe that to Roger and James Deakins really because they said, “Hey, get Donald because we worked with him on Skyfall.” That’s how the business works, and they’re friends of mine, and I love them. Then Jake came in, and we talked a little bit on the phone about a month before, and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be something,” because he really wants to explore the character. Sometimes on paper, a role doesn’t read as great as it turns out. I think that’s the case with that whole movie.

JS: I 100% agree! And I always talk about this with Prisoners, because I love that movie, but I think everyone in that film elevates that script and those characters to a level that they would not otherwise be at.

DM: Oh, yeah! I mean, when you first read it you’re kind of like, “Wow, OK…” That’s how I was. I think what I started to recognize was that I really learned a lot from Denis and Roger because they have exquisite taste. Denis has an eye, so I know I can’t pull a fast one – not that I would! But he really will stop, and we’ve had a couple moments where he’ll ask me, “What are you thinking?” With Jake, we figured out the hair. There was something always in my head that the character had a Russian vibe to him. Then Jake wanted these tattoos, and I thought, “This is really difficult because we’re doing too many things.” The neck, the fingers. He pushed me a little bit, and I pushed back. Everybody let us do our thing, and then Denis saw it and was like, “Yeah, OK, I like it.”

Sometimes you go, “Oh shit, I’m running out of ideas” and then the actor will always come up with something. Frankly, I’ll do anything. If you want me to put a polka dot in the middle of your face, I’ll do it, if it gives us a way to try something. But in the end, and certainly with Denis’ films, we’ve always come back to “based-in-reality.” I think with Jake, the neck [tattoo] worked, the hands worked with the hair. We were good.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s finger tattoos in “Prisoners.” (Photo courtesy of Alcon Entertainment)

JS: What was it like first meeting Denis? Did you get a sense right away that it was going to be a strong relationship and that you’d still be working with him six or seven years later?

DM: You never count on anything. The business is so fickle, but he’s certainly not. He’s just remarkable. You have a lot of things at work. Actors will request people, producers will request people, sometimes a costume designer. I never thought I’d work with Denis again until Sicario came along. I was almost on another job. Roger was going to be on it [Sicario] and James and his whole team were going to be on it, and I didn’t want to miss it. Of course not! I’m so glad I didn’t. I nearly did Terminator: Genisys. I’m happy for them, it gave other people a great job, but it was not the right fit for me.

Denis has been really, really good to me. You work hard, and you’re challenged. You don’t walk in and just get away with it. You have to really defend your position and come up with stuff, and it’s often really last-minute. I can work that way with him. Other people might find it difficult. Some people are too rigid for it. We did Prisoners, and I think it went really well. I love the project. I loved working on it. The people, the cast, the producers, everything about that film I still have a good feeling about. And I have the same thing with Sicario, so that is very telling.

JS: You did Blade Runner 2049, which was really your first time diving into a full science-fiction universe. For you, coming from projects that are more naturalistic, how was that? Was it daunting?

DM: It was terrifying. Blade Runner has always been – for many of us in design, costume, makeup, whatever – an example. I’ve used Sid and Nancy, 1984, Children of Men and all kinds of films for reference. When they approached me for Blade Runner 2049 and our producer, Bill Carraro, called me, I was a little bit like, “Oh my god. Why me?”

I talked to Denis, I called him at home and I said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” We don’t know each other that well at this point. And I sort of said, “I don’t know… this job.” And I started looking at his references. And he sort of said, “Look, of course you’re terrified. Everybody is.” And Roger kind of said the same thing, and I went over there for dinner one night, and I talked to Roger and James. Then I went “You know, we’re all in this together. We really are. And we’ll figure it out.” 

JS: I know Dave Bautista as Sapper was originally deemed too young by Denis, and apparently they brought him back for makeup tests to see if they could age him. Were you involved with those?

DM: Yeah, so I organized that. Dave was in Atlanta shooting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Denis asked if I would age him. I just couldn’t get to Atlanta, so I called John Blake, who was the HoD (Head of Makeup Department) on that [Guardians]. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted them to do, and they followed it. Basically, the studio hired him and Denis hired him based on my putting together a makeup test.

Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049.” (Photo courtesy of Alcon Entertainment)

JS: Probably the most famous or iconic scene from that movie is the one with the giant, pink Joi. When I first saw it, I thought that they changed all of the color on her body in post-production and that Ana de Armas was normal when you recorded it. Tell me how you went about transforming her for that scene.

DM: Everyone thinks that. Everyone has gone to the world of CG, but the special effects of 2049 – as remarkable as they are – were a bit of a handful for us because that department works way more people than us. We really struggled on that film because I had a very limited crew, and there was always something we had to do for VFX. With Joi, Denis had sent me something very early on of a couple versions. The first one I saw, I didn’t love. It looked a little too much like Mystique [from X-Men]. I went back and forth with Denis, and she went from being kind of red to sort of pink. 

Of course, I didn’t know who the actress was until they told me Ana de Armas. At that time, nobody knew her. Now she’s a huge star, and I’m thrilled for her. But at the time, it was like, “Is her skin very pale if we make her pink?” I really brought all body makeup with me. I went to my beauty supplier in North Hollywood before we left because I was starting to get very nervous. We tried green-screen contact lenses that could be any color, so we did green and yellow. Then we did purple-y black. I think we did six contact lenses for her. Took her for a lens fitting, picked up everything in pink. It was going to be pink hair, but then somehow the pink hair wasn’t working. It had to be more of a contrast, like a mauve or purple.

When we got to Hungary, I pulled all this stuff out, and I would go up to Roger’s office and say, “What is pink to you? Is it bubblegum? Is it this color? That color?” I finally went up and said, “This is what I think it is.” And Roger said, “That’s it.” That’s how we did it. It was not high-tech at all, we did it by hand, three of us for the first time in Ana’s trailer. We went to the mauve wig, we did a take with lenses and one without, everyone loved it. It was a big focus of the film and a lot of stress, but actually much easier than people think. The irony in all of this is everyone thinks it was done strictly with computers when it was actually a practical makeup.

JS: With Dune, it was your first time being Head of Makeup Department, Head of Hair Department, Makeup Designer and Prosthetics Designer. Was that a lot to take on all at once?

DM: When Dune came up, there were a number of obstacles, but I have some phenomenal people working on this film in makeup, hair, prosthetics. It’s kind of staggering. They also let me – the production and the studio – decide all of that, from top to bottom. Which is kind of how it should be on more films, if you ask me. It certainly worked very well for me, and I think the work shows that.

Zendaya in “Dune.” (Chiabella James/Vanity Fair)

JS: Dune marks your fourth collaboration with Denis. What was it like coming into this project with him now that you two have a stronger relationship and more experience together?

DM: Well, it was very difficult for me because I left the Bond franchise to do Dune. I made a huge, huge change, and it was very hard for me. I love working with Daniel Craig. I truly mean it. Daniel Craig is about one of the finest-tuned human beings I know, and we have a very nice way of working. My creative, inner makeup guy said Dune, no question. But the other part of me was like Bond, come on. But it was the safe choice. Maybe I’m a bad boy. I’ve never played it safe my whole life. I used to turn down TV because I thought if you’re going to do movies, you can’t do TV. I felt because I had done the two Bonds, and I loved Daniel and [Bond producer] Barbara [Broccoli] and everyone was so good to me. It was a hard choice.

I was in London and doing Spider-Man: Far From Home, and every time I opened a newspaper, Bond was delayed. Then Dune gets announced, and you’re like, “Oh my god!” Then everyone is calling me, and I get a call asking if I’m available. I went, “Well, maybe I am available.” Basically, I was put on hold and told that I wasn’t coming to Bond for five months. And I sat there going, “Well, I could be doing Dune. I’ve got to do this. I don’t have that many more years left; I’m in my fifties now.” It was a very tough choice for me. It’s rare you make real friends in this business. I really felt like I was going to disappoint a friend.

Once I got to Dune, and I was there exhausted, trudging away in Jordan, I went, “Am I insane? I could be in Capri, sipping a cocktail, doing nice makeup on Daniel Craig.” But no, for this movie, for Denis, it’s a challenge. It’s what I’m about.

JS: Denis read the novel when he was a teenager and has been wanting to make a Dune film his whole life. Did they add any challenges, having to work with his own vision for the novel and his preconceptions?

DM: No, I felt like I had things in mind early on that we talked about, and there was real freedom in some respects. I present him my first ideas, hear what he’s thinking, and I get all the visuals from production design and costume. Everybody’s got to bring something, and then you end up taking elements. That’s what I love about working with Denis. Just because you do a board that’s got somebody with all kinds of tattoos and all kinds of things happening doesn’t mean you’re going to use it all. You might take one element, and that’s what I love about him. We’ll choose, and then he’ll say, “No, maybe it’s that.” And we’ll try it. And on the day, he might say, “You know what, Donald? It doesn’t work.” At one point on 2049, Jared was going to be bald. I’m not kidding. It’s a test somewhere. We did bald with a beard. It looked too much like another movie and was too soon, and there was something about the long hair that was kind of Svengali and Jesus-y. Then we talked about the lenses, and just did that, which was more than enough.

JS: On Dune, you’re out in the desert in Jordan, and it’s 100 degrees. What kind of challenges has the environment of this film offered?

DM: It’s very much like when you’re shooting a Western. A ziplock bag of makeup is covered in dust at the end of the day. Everything is covered in dust and sand. You’ve got to be fit, you’re walking everywhere or riding in dune buggies, and it’s rocky, and you’ve got to climb. It’s tough. It’s a young man’s game, for sure. I thought, “I can barely get up there.” If you fall, you’re in big trouble. So, I started to recognize that was a huge thing, and the heat later was a huge thing. You have to be young or fit. But you’re suddenly out there going, “Wow, I’m doing it, though.” I was really proud of myself in Jordan. We had a couple remarkable moments of either sunset or sunrise in some of those places where I felt very privileged to work on a film of this scope with some of these people and that I’m able to be part of it and enjoy it and have made it to that level.

For more of Johnny’s conversation with Donald Mowat, check out the full video interview.

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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